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Yemeni UAE-backed force takes al-Qaeda stronghold

Truck driven by suicide bomber explodes when elite forces enter Mahfad, killing one soldier, wounding five
AQAP militants listen to their chief Nasser al-Wuhayshi at undisclosed location in Yemen (AFP)

An elite Yemeni force formed by the United Arab Emirates captured the town of Mahfad, an al-Qaeda stronghold in the southern province of Abyan, a military official said on Sunday.

"Our forces have entered Mahfad and seized the highway," Colonel Munir al-Yafei told AFP.

The key highway connects government stronghold Aden to Ataq, capital of oil-rich Shabwa province.

"We have erected roadblocks and will soon start scouring valleys and mountains," the source said.

The advance was made without much resistance from al-Qaeda, whose militants have been retreating without a fight against government troops in the area for months.

A truck driven by a suicide bomber, however, exploded when the elite forces entered Mahfad, killing one soldier and wounding five, Yafei said.

Mahfad had become one of the main al-Qaeda strongholds in southern Yemen and many militants retreated, fleeing the advance in Aden, Abyan, Lahj and Shabwa provinces.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has flourished in the chaos of Yemen's civil war, which pits the UAE and Saudi-backed government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The UAE has been playing a key role in a Saudi-led military campaign to prop up Hadi's government after the Houthis forced him into exile.

Special forces, drones

In August, Emirati-trained Yemeni special forces launched a US-backed operation against AQAP, also the target of a long-running US drone campaign.

More than 8,600 people have been killed in Yemen since the coalition joined the war in 2015, according to the World Health Organisation.

Another 2,100 have died of cholera this year. 

The UN Human Rights Council agreed in September to send war crimes investigators to Yemen, overcoming resistance from Saudi Arabia.

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